Degree apprenticeships are a well-kept secret when we should be shouting about their multiple benefits to individuals and society. There are currently around 7,000 degree apprentices in England, but this number could be much higher. Growing the number of people on degree apprenticeships should be central part of a new Prime Minister’s plan to improve workforce skills and enhance social mobility.
Universities UK has spent several months talking to employers, degree apprentices, universities, potential applicants and their parents about how degree apprenticeships could be enhanced and better supported. Findings from our report, published today, should act as a wake-up call to government on the need for improving the system.
Why keep it a secret?
One of the biggest economic challenges facing the UK is to meet employer demand for workers with the high level, transferable skills – analytical, team-working and communication – needed in the rapidly changing world of work. The nation needs more graduates, not fewer.
Politicians like to compare the benefits of academic and vocational training: degree apprenticeships offer the best of both worlds. They are an exciting alternative to more traditional study routes – combining learning in the workplace with a high-quality education, allowing degree apprentices to earn while they learn.
The evidence shows that the growth in degree apprenticeships is being held back by poor low levels of awareness and an overly bureaucratic system. At schools and among businesses across England, there is little knowledge about degree apprenticeships, and perceptions about vocational options as inferior choices, persist.
Four out of five pupils in Years 10 and 12 admit to knowing little or nothing at all about the application process for degree apprenticeships and only 7% have knowledge of their course structures. In focus groups, however, when parents and school pupils discover more about them, they are enthusiastic. 78% of the parents surveyed said they would advise their child to apply for a degree apprenticeship.
The government should lead a major campaign to promote the benefits of degree apprenticeships to employers, parents and school pupils so more people of all ages know about them. Pupils should receive better quality careers information on degree apprenticeships from a younger age. UCAS promote, advise and oversee applications for other university courses. The same high-quality service should be made available for degree apprenticeships.
What employers really want
Employers see the potential of degree apprenticeships in improving the diversity of their organisation and offering opportunities to those from disadvantaged backgrounds to upskill. Government should be investing in initiatives to encourage lifelong learning and supporting the growth in degree apprentices among underrepresented groups.
Improving opportunities for lifelong learning was a strong theme in the recent Augar review of post-18 education and funding, although one of the panel’s recommendations – restricting access to degree apprenticeships for those with undergraduate degrees – would be a damaging new barrier to achieving this.
It’s time to strip back the bureaucracy, streamline processes and reduce unnecessary costs in the system. While demand to provide degree apprenticeships from employers and universities is strong, the system for setting up apprenticeships and employing apprentices can be slow, confusing and costly. This can deter larger companies and prove to be a non-starter for smaller businesses.
It should be made easier for employers to include a degree qualification within their apprenticeships where they see it adding value to their business and to their apprentices. Employers value to university backing that a degree element provides. The degree element is attractive to applicants because it offers parity with other graduates.
Bringing it together
Those employers able to offer degree apprenticeships speak highly of the benefits. Their emergence is also having a positive impact on collaboration between universities, employers and colleges, and providing a route for students from lower level qualifications through to degrees.
Degree apprenticeships in nursing, policing, digital technology, and teaching are starting to fill skills gaps. This success and future growth should be encouraged. They can help to meet future employer demand in areas such as digital technology, management and in public services, and boost regional economies.
A flourishing degree apprenticeship system can be part of the antidote to many of the nation’s challenges on skills, economic growth and social mobility.